Auto recycling is a multi-billion dollar industry that allows scrap metal to be turned into recycled steel, which uses about 74% less energy than producing new steel. While most consumers are at least somewhat familiar with car recycling, many wonder what happens to hybrid and electric vehicles when they reach the end of their life.
In an attempt to reduce waste in landfill and curtail carbon emissions, a growing number of companies are now recycling hybrid and electric vehicle batteries. The most important component of the battery is lithium, which is in big demand as it can be used to produce rechargeable batteries for smartphones, cameras, and laptops. The demand for lithium is predicted to reach up to 500,000 tons by 2020, or double the current demand. Most hybrid and electric batteries include lithium, but not all of them, as early hybrids usually used a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery.
Advanced lithium batteries used in most plug-in electric vehicles today are the most difficult to recycle, partly because many chemistries are involved in their production and each chemical component has a different recycling value. The lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries found in popular vehicles like the Nissan Leaf offer a high recycling value due to the fact that cobalt and nickel are expensive to produce. Lithium, meanwhile, is in high demand but extracting the lithium does not always make financial sense as the cost to recycle lithium exceeds the cost to mine new lithium in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Future models of plug-in vehicles will likely have cheaper components which will bring the price down on electric vehicles.
Lithium Battery Disposal
When an electric or hybrid vehicle reaches the end of its life, the battery can be disposed of through an auto salvage company. About 85% of recovered lithium batteries may be suitable for a post-vehicle use, but about 15% are usually damaged beyond repair. When a battery has about 70% capacity remaining, which is too little to serve in a vehicle, it may still have up to a decade of use left as a storage device. There are many potential uses for recycled lithium-ion battery packs, including bundling used batteries with solar panels for home use or by power plants to balance electricity generation with wind and solar generation.
Lithium-ion batteries can be recycled in two ways after they reach a recycling plant. The first option for batteries with no charge is to shred the battery to retrieve and sort the metal components. If the battery has a charge, it can be frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed before the metal is separated. The separation of the many types of materials in the batteries is frequently a stumbling block to recover high-value materials like copper. Standardization of batteries and materials as well as a design that considers recycling can improve the sustainability of electric vehicles, although this is a long-term goal.
A number of companies are now working to increase recycling of end-of-life hybrid and electric vehicle batteries. In France, battery recycling company SNAM has partnered with PSA Peugeot Citroën to collect and recycle lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries from the Citroën and Peugeot networks. According to SNAM, the company can recycle up to 80% of the weight of the battery which exceeds the 50% minimum target for recycling efficiency set by regulations.
In the United States, the Department of Energy has awarded a $.9.5 million grant to a California recycling company to boost its capacity lithium-ion batteries. Toxco Inc. is the only U.S.-based company that can recycle all types of lithium-ion batteries and nickel-metal hydride batteries. The grant will assist the recycling company with accepting and recycling most of the country’s hybrid and electric vehicle batteries to transform them into scrap commodities.
As the demand for hybrid and electric vehicles continues to grow, so will the demand for the materials that power the batteries, including cobalt, manganese, and lithium. With electric vehicles becoming more prevalent, it’s becoming more important than ever to find a safe way to dispose of the batteries without destroying valuable materials that have further use.